Anticonvulsant Medications and Birth Defects - Consumer Justice Foundation

Anticonvulsant Medications and Birth Defects

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Anticonvulsant Medications and Birth Defects

Women who take anticonvulsant drugs while pregnant may be at risk of giving birth to children with one or more serious birth defects.

One of the most important responsibilities of medical professionals is to provide pregnant patients with important and accurate information about what factors may put their unborn child at risk of injury or illness. Consider medications, for example. Monitoring what you put in your body is important for everyone, but keeping track of what medications you take while you are pregnant is especially important because it affects not only you, but your child as well. Even women who are not pregnant but are of childbearing age should be very careful when taking certain medications. Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, which means women taking a harmful medication may expose their unborn child to life-threatening birth defects before they are even aware they are pregnant. Unfortunately, no matter how careful pregnant women are when it comes to taking medications, if pharmaceutical companies conceal dangerous drug information or if doctors fail to warn their patients about the possible birth defect risks of medications, women are unable to protect themselves and their babies. Anticonvulsant drugs, for example, have been the subject of scrutiny for years because of their possible link to birth defects. However, few drug companies have established adequate drug label warnings notifying patients about this risk. If your child was born with a birth defect and you believe an anticonvulsant drug to be the cause, contact a birth defect attorney immediately.

What are Anticonvulsant Drugs?

Anticonvulsant drugs, also called anti-epileptic drugs, in particular have been pegged as possibly causing birth defects in babies, which has led to serious concerns about the safety of these medications. Some of the most commonly prescribed anticonvulsant drugs are Depakote (valproic acid) and Topamax (topiramate), two medications used to treat conditions like epilepsy, migraine headaches, seizures and bipolar disorder. Although anticonvulsant drugs have been shown to be beneficial in treating these conditions, significant research has focused on the potential for anticonvulsants to cause major birth defects in children. With the publication of anticonvulsant birth defect studies, researchers are bringing public attention to the potentially harmful nature of these medications, allowing women to make educated decisions about what medications are safe for them to take in pregnancy. Even the FDA has issued warnings regarding some anticonvulsant drugs, indicating that pregnant women should avoiding taking them, especially to treat conditions not typically associated with permanent injury or death.

What are Birth Defects?

Birth defects are typically categorized as structural, developmental or metabolic, and can affect the way a baby’s body looks, works, or both. Birth defects can range from minor to life-threatening, and can be discovered before birth, at birth, or anytime after birth. While some birth defects like cleft lip and cleft palate are immediately noticeable, others, like heart defects, may not be diagnosed until a serious complication arises. Heart birth defects are particularly dangerous because they can prevent the baby’s body from receiving the blood and oxygen it needs to survive, and some of them are incurable. Unfortunately, heart defects are also pretty common, affecting about one in every 100 to 200 babies.

When Do Birth Defects Happen?

Most birth defects occur during the first trimester of pregnancy, or the first three months, when a baby’s vital organs and major physical structures are developing. This is the most important stage of a baby’s development in utero, and is therefore the time that a baby is most vulnerable to life-threatening birth defects. Other birth defects happen later in pregnancy when the baby’s tissues and organs continue to develop. Birth defects that typically occur during later stages of pregnancy, like persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN), are equally as dangerous and can even cause a baby to die. Because of these serious birth defect risks, it is important for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to talk to their doctors about their medications. In some cases, women may need to weigh the possible benefits of the treatment against the potential birth defect risks to determine whether or not to continue using the medication.

Anticonvulsant Drugs and Birth Defects

One of the most harmful aspects of taking anticonvulsant drugs while pregnant is that they actually have the potential to interfere with the development of your baby, sometimes leading to one or more serious birth defects. Studies have shown that the use of Depakote in pregnancy, for example, may be associated with severe birth defects among babies, including neural tube birth defects, spina bifida, heart birth defects, fetal death and skeletal birth defects. There have also been studies linking the anticonvulsant Topamax to possible birth defects like cleft lip, cleft palate and hypospadias, a genital malformation affecting male babies. All babies have the right to live a happy and healthy life, but birth defects can rob them of this right, sometimes forcing them to live with life-long disabilities, continuous medical care, and sometimes even taking away their life. If you took an anticonvulsant drug while pregnant, and your child was born with a birth defect, contact a birth defect attorney today, as he or she may be entitled to lifetime care.

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